Christian Nationalism: A Cautionary Tale

Recent Supreme Court decisions have set a spark to simmering dry tinder surrounding the issue of separation of church and state. As for one of the Court’s most controversial decisions, some go as far as to suggest that the Court was guided more by religious doctrine than by the U.S. Constitution. But at a broader level, the conservative Court and its decisions have emboldened the evangelical right.

Commonly described as “Christian nationalists,” they suggest that the line between church as state – at least when it involves the Christian church and the state of the United States – should not be that clearly separated.

To those, a lesson from history. When the Roman state and Christian church first merged, it was government that gained and the nascent but growing Jesus movement that was the big loser.

In 313, Emperor Constantine formally enacted the Edict of Milan legalizing Christianity. Later that century, on February 27, 380, Emperor Theodosius made Christianity the imperial religion. Some Christian historians believe that these two acts were the worst thing to befall Christianity in its early history.

During its first two hundred or so years, the “Jesus movement” spread rapidly throughout the Roman empire. Operating outside the machinations of government even to the point of persecution, Christianity was a religion of choice, a religion of charity with a particular focus on caring for the poor, orphaned, widowed and otherwise vulnerable. Its attraction was not only in its unusual teachings – that the first will be last, that the poor are blessed and woe to the wealthy, a call for humility, to serve rather than be served, that God is love and that in Him we find forgiveness. Its attraction was also in its familial and communal network of care, kindness, and support.

Rome’s adoption of Christianity changed a lot of that and in many cases not for the better. Here are five to consider:

From familial to institutional and bureaucratic – Early Christians didn’t meet in churches; they met in each others’ homes. To be sure, much of that was because of persecution by various Roman emperors – from Nero to Trajan to Marcus Aurelius and finally Diocletian. But the move to legalize and later adopt Christianity as the imperial religion led to not just the allowance of public worship. It also led to created structures – both physical and social – that quickly eroded the original communal nature of Jesus followers. In many instances, Emperors seized infrastructure from other pagan faiths and “donated” them to the Christian church leaders. “Church” became a building, not a people. Church became a “dome” not a “home”.

From bottom up to top-down conversion – The establishment of Christianity as the official religion of the empire reversed the method of traditional Christian evangelism. In the early days, Christianity was a religion of choice, spread primarily among families and communities via personal appeals. As an imperial religion, that changed. Instead of being spread “bottom-up”, Christianity was spread from the top down. That is, newly conquered rulers were “convinced” by their new emperor to accept Christianity and those rulers, in turn, “convinced” their countrymen and women to do the same. Adoption of Christianity became more often a choice of politics and material gain rather than that of faith.

From diversity to rigid patriarchy – As suggested above, the early church was a loose affiliation of familial converts with widespread diversity and autonomy in the practice of their faith. To be sure, if these assemblies got out of line, they’d likely get a letter or two from Paul or other apostles and disciples. But even in their chiding, the apostles called for unity, not division. Again, association with the Roman government changed that. Over a short period of time during the 4th and 5th Centuries, four major patriarchies were established in Rome, Antioch, Alexandria, and Constantinople. Each developed their own doctrinal theory. Each competed for influence and dominance and worked to impose their doctrine on others. Bitter, vitriolic doctrinal schisms emerged over what some might consider arcane doctrinal issues including the Trinity and Christology. Bishops were ex-communicating each other right and left, East and West, North and South. Amidst all this, Roman emperors jockeyed amongst the various patriarchs not out of any attraction or personal belief but rather as a power grab, throwing their lot with whoever they thought would end up on top so they could preserve unity within the empire.

From apolitical to totally political – When responding to a question about taxes Jesus famously made the distinction between church and state. Jesus said “render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s and render unto God what is God’s”. His meaning was clear – the two were very different. But with the Roman adoption of Christianity as the “preferred” and later the state religion, imperial and religious power became one and the same. During the late 4th and throughout the 5th and 6th centuries, rendering unto Caesar and rendering unto God became one in the same.

From Godly to worldly – From its origins, Christianity was “otherworldly.” In John’s account, Jesus tells his followers that the reason people are upset with them is because they are “not of the world.” Later, Paul admonishes Christians to not be “conformed to this world” but to be “transformed” in mind and body. As an imperial religion, Christianity went from Godly and spiritual to worldly and carnal. Christianity went from being “not ‘of’ this world” to being a servant or slave to the world – specifically, the world of the Roman empire. Christianity became less about serving the poor, widowed, and orphaned and more about serving the Roman empire and its search for political predictability and stability.

All this should be a cautionary tale – both for Christians and others. As Father Mickiewicz, pastor of St. Mary’s parish in Oneonta, New York wrote:

“Emperors Constantine and Theodosius did Christianity no favors. They were the catalyst that caused the edgy Gospel message to be diluted — and, we have to ask, at what price? The price of the soul of Christianity?”

So be careful. History has a way of repeating itself.

 

 

Photo credit: Alastair Rae Creative Commons 2.o

Mr. Johnson’s Vocab Quiz

Vocab list

I just spent the better part of the 2021-22 school year with the students of Lake Braddock High School in Fairfax County, Virginia. I taught them about the U.S. Government, the American legal and court system, and current events. All three timely subjects. And I hope I helped some of our next generation of citizens to think critically, judiciously, and fairly through many of the important issues facing our society.

But as often happens, the teacher learns from his or her students. I know I learned a lot from mine.

One of many was bringing current my language and vocabulary skills. It all started when one day at the end of class, a student in the front row said, “You know Mr. Johnson … you’re a real girl boss.” I paused, not quite sure how to take the comment as I am neither a girl nor, for that matter, anyone’s boss. She assured me, it was a compliment. Others concurred. Indeed, a high compliment they claimed. I’m still not quite sure. The kids were pretty good at “playing” Mr. Johnson! All in good humor.

Clearly, I was behind and befuddled by the current nomenclature of GenZ. So my students came to the rescue! Together we devoted an entire whiteboard to it – that is, getting Mr. Johnson’s vocab up to snuff. You’ll see the last version above and I thought I’d share, knowing that many of you will likely know these things. It was all new – and often a bit odd – to this old guy.

  • If you go to class in a suit, you’ll likely be accused of having a nice drip. One morning I was told by a student that I was drippin’. I was informed this had nothing to do with liquids.
  • If you hear the word slay, don’t call 911 or go into active shooter drills. Rather it is someone telling you that you did something real cool.
  • Another student once told me the class was fire. See slay above. Don’t call 911.
  • Say less means that you’ve said enough. They’ve got it.
  • Rizz is something you want to have.
  • Speaking of, the opposite of shredded is swole. You want to be the former, not the latter.
  • It used to be you’d have a “crush” on someone. Dial that up a bit. Throw in some bit of the blues and a bucketload of hormones. Then you’re down bad with him or her.
  • Don’t get the above category confused with flicking up. I’m told “flicking up” is something those of all ages, genders, and ethnicities do often and is legal in all fifty states and even in most school districts. When a student first asked if I would “flick up” with them I was mortified. Stunned speechless … only to find out all they wanted was a selfie.
  • And finally, I learned that dumpy was not an adjective to describe a run-down home or apartment. Rather, it is a noun and something you may have. Specifically, a body part. Look it up.

I’ll leave you with one of my “goodbye” notes from a graduating senior. It read: “Thank you for being such a slay teacher and flicking up w/ me in class, you are a real G!”

Who knew? Not this old guy.

Thanks, students of Lake Braddock! You taught your teacher well.

Jesus, Critical Race Theory, and American Exceptionalism

American Flag

Photo by Aaron Burden on Unsplash

I ran through several titles for this post. This is what I ended up with. 

It is not quite as provocative as a bunch of others I thought about.  Like “Jesus would support critical race theory. Or “American exceptionalism is unchristian.” But I figured titles along those lines would unnecessarily antagonize. Lord knows we have enough of all of that.

But here’s the nub of the issue. Critical race theory (CRT), which has been around for decades and never raised much of a fuss, has all of a sudden set conservatives in an uproar. The Heritage Institute claims that “when followed to its logical conclusion, CRT is destructive and rejects the fundamental ideas on which our constitutional republic is based.” Evangelical pastors and their churches have also been set ablaze. In pulpits and bylines across America, they are supporting states’ efforts to ban mention of CRT in public education.  Scholars and theologians from the Southern Baptist Convention claim that CRT is “unbiblical” and inconsistent with Christianity. Others have called it “something of a Christian heresy.”

So what exactly is CRT? If you listen to a lot of conservatives or evangelicals you’d think it is the coming of the anti-Christ – a humanist theology seeking to replace Judeo-Christian values. But that’s simply not true. In one of the most informed and balanced pieces I’ve read on CRT,  Education Week’s associate editor, Steve Sawchuck, describes CRT this way:

Critical race theory is an academic concept that is more than 40 years old. The core idea is that racism is a social construct, and that it is not merely the product of individual bias or prejudice, but also something embedded in legal systems and policies.

That’s it. Racism creeps into legal systems and policies. This is a surprise?

No, CRT is not some Marxist or Satanic plot. CRT is a description, of what is and less of a prescription of what to do about it. CRT merely says that racism goes beyond individuals and eventually becomes systemic. That is because people construct societies, and in the process of constructing those societies people bring with them their individual biases and prejudices. These biases and prejudices infect and shape the institutions and societies people create.

Makes perfect sense to me.

It also strikes me as consistent with what I know of Jesus’ teachings. Let’s start with the concept of sin and racism. 

Man’s sinful nature isn’t a new concept. It has been a central theme of Christian theology since – well – since the beginning. St. Paul. Augustine. Martin Luther. Calvin. All saw Jesus as the means to escape an inherently grim human condition. By the time this got to Calvin, he went so far as to describe our condition – that is, the condition of all human beings – as that of “total depravity.” 

My interpretation of scripture doesn’t go that far. The total depravity part, that is. But I find the concept of “sin” and “sinner” experientially relevant. That is, I see it (sin) in myself and others. And our recognition and repentance of what constitutes these bad thoughts and behaviors – are central to Jesus’ teaching.  When I was growing up in church, I was encouraged to publicly confess not only that I am a sinner but that my “sin” thing was largely an incurable condition. That while I should seek God’s help and guidance to overcome it, I’m sorta stuck with it. Sin, that is. And I did so because deep inside me I know that was a pretty good description of me and folks around me – even those that I admired. But Jesus provides hope because as Paul wrote, “while we were yet sinners” he sacrificed his life for ours.

So here’s the question: If Christians are ok with standing up and saying “I’m a sinner” why do they freak out when someone asks them to confess “I’m a racist”? Surely racism falls into the “sin” bucket. What makes it so hard for Christians to accept the reality of our own prejudice?

I think beneath the religious panic is political mythology.

Could it be that the real reason for the freak out of CRT is that it punctures the balloon of American exceptionalism? That CRT somehow makes Americans and American history look less like a Marvel Superhero and – well – more “human.” That somehow makes CRT unpatriotic. It doesn’t quite fit into Lee Greenwood’s “God Bless the USA” Bible!

Any (good) student of U.S. history knows that Americans’ self-perceived “exceptionalism” has been part of our story since the colonies. It has been linked to our Puritan or Christian “specialness.” Winthrop had his “City on a Hill.” Jacksonian Democrats and Teddy Roosevelt had John O’Sullivan’s Christian-based Manifest Destiny. Ronald Reagan claimed America as “set aside as a promised land.” America is exceptional. Perhaps by extension, God has a special thing for the U.S.A.

Here’s the problem. I’m not sure Jesus would agree with this either. 

Whatever happened to “red, and yellow, black, and white … they are precious in his sight”? It wasn’t just the American children that Jesus loved. As I remember it, it was the “children of the world.” And it’s a big world out there.

Sadly, throughout American history, legitimate pride and patriotism have often fallen prey to nativism, imperialism and … you got it! … a sense of (white) American superiority. Sometimes it was even Christian superiority. Sometimes it was even the superiority of some types of Christianity (Protestantism) over other types of Christianity (Catholics). Go back to your U.S. history books and read about the “No Nothing Party.” Not sure how that aligns with Jesus’ views on the beauty of humility and the ugliness of pride. Humility was high on the “blessed” list in Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. Last I read in the books of Matthew and Luke, exceptionalism didn’t make the cut.

It reminds me of Jesus’ parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector.  It was the story of two people praying. The Pharisee was in the front of the church and thought pretty highly of himself. His prayer was – literally –  God, I thank you that I am not like other people.” He went on to say that he was especially thankful that God made him better than the scum tax collector in the back of the room. Sorta sounds a lot like exceptionalism to me. A bit like “I’m thankful God, you made me an American and not one of those awful socialist wussy Dutch, Danish or Swedish types. Jesus wasn’t too happy with the Pharisee. Rather, Jesus sided with the tax collector – the guy in the back of the room who didn’t claim to be better than anyone. He simply asked God “to have mercy upon me, a sinner.”

[Sidenote: I also think that Jesus would likely challenge anyone who makes the claim that “I don’t have a racist bone in my body” or “they don’t have a racist bone in their body.” I do. You do. They do. We just need to deal with it.]

Finally, let’s put Jesus and Christian theology to the side for a moment, and just talk about American history. Facts. Truth. Stuff that actually happened.

I don’t want to pick on any one state but I find it ironic (that’s the nicest word I can come up with) that one of the biggest opponents of CRT is Senator Cotton from Arkansas. Arkansas is the state where, in 1957, following the landmark ruling of Brown v. Board of Education, the Governor infamously called out the National Guard to maintain segregation of white students from black students in public schools. That policy – the segregation of white and black communities – had been in place in the state of Arkansas and much of the nation for over 60 years or since Reconstruction. It was state law. It was institutionalized racism. Systemic racism. Whatever the label, racism was the rule of law. Add to that the fact that the state of Arkansas was admitted to the Union in 1836 precisely because it was a “slave” state. Its admission as the 25th state was meant to preserve the balance of slave vs. free states in the Union. Look at it this way. Arkansas has been a state for approximately 185 years, and for approximately two-thirds of its history it was either a slave state or a segregationist state.

Are we to simply ignore the two-thirds of Arkansas’ history? Pretend that race wasn’t an issue? Pretend that race still isn’t an issue? In Arkansas and every other state in the Union?

CRT is a theory. It is not a religion, it is not a government, it is not a way of life. It is just a theory “which dates back to the 1970s, [and] holds that racism is systemic and embedded in policies rather than just perpetuated by bigoted people, creating barriers for people of color in myriad spheres of life.”

Makes sense to me. Critical race theory is not a radical concept. It is historically accurate. And based on my read of the Bible, it is quite in keeping with what Jesus and his disciples taught.

Choices

boots

Photo by Oziel Gómez on Unsplash

We have them. At least some of the time.

But are we the result of our choices?

I ask because I’m finishing up a course for high school teachers on what is called “The Economic Way of Thinking.” It didn’t take long for me to learn that it was mainly a course on how to teach or infuse history with the benefits of free-market, capitalism. Business=good. Government=bad.

A lot of their logic rests on the premise of choice. Indeed, the very first principle taught as part of the course was: People choose, and individual choices are the source of social outcomes.

Now I’m a big believer in personal responsibility. But when I read this I thought to myself, “there’s some amiss here.” It made everything sound so simple. Too simple. You choose and from those choices you make, stuff happens. Some good stuff. Some bad stuff. But whatever stuff it is, it is all the result of your choices.

As I read this decidedly conservative curriculum the more I wondered: “how much choice do people really have?”

Probably less than one might think.

There are a lot of things about which we have no choice. I didn’t get to choose my gender, ethnicity, or my race (I’m male and very white). I didn’t get to choose whether my parents had good or bad parenting skills (I got very lucky on this one!). I didn’t get to choose my lower-middle-class neighborhood outside of New Orleans (not too dangerous but sometimes sketchy). And I certainly didn’t get to choose my DNA or “natural talents” (missed out on most of those).

Now one might say that these don’t matter much. That regardless of whatever combination of the above factors – gender, race, parenting, neighborhood, genes, talent – regardless of any of that, each person gets to “shape” their own destiny. 

True in theory. But “conditions” shape “choices.” The latter makes the former either much easier or much more challenging. And for every story about a down-and-out, challenged individual who through pluck and effort made something out of themselves, I can probably identify dozens who made the same effort, worked just as hard, but found themselves at the wrong place at the wrong time with the wrong boss and under the wrong circumstances.

History is about choices. But history is also about circumstances and the chances and choices they afford. It is good, I believe, to recognize that because of their circumstances, some have much better choices – and therefore much better chances – than others.

I’m reminded of the exchange between reporter Sander Vanocur of NBC News and Dr. Martin Luther King in May 1967. Here’s the full interview posted by Josh Dance:

NBC correspondent Sander Vanocur:

What is it about the negro I mean every other group that came as an immigrant somehow? Not easily, but somehow got around it. Is it just the fact that Negroes are Black?

Martin Luther King:

“White America must see, that no other ethnic group has been a slave on American soil. That is one thing that other immigrant groups haven’t had to face.

The other thing is that the color, became a stigma. American society made the Negroes color a stigma. America freed the slaves in 1863, through the Emancipation Proclamation of Abraham Lincoln, but gave the slaves no land, and nothing in reality. And as a matter of fact, to get started on.

At the same time, America was giving away, millions of acres of land in the west and the Midwest. Which meant that there was a willingness to give the white peasants from Europe an economic base, and yet it refused to give its black peasants from Africa, who came here involuntarily in chains and had worked free for two hundred and forty-four years, any kind of economic base.

And so emancipation for the Negro was really freedom to hunger. It was freedom to the winds and rains of Heaven. It was freedom without food to eat or land to cultivate and therefore was freedom and famine at the same time.

And when white Americans tell the Negro to “’lift himself by his own bootstraps’, they don’t, oh, they don’t look over the legacy of slavery and segregation. I believe we ought to do all we can and seek to lift ourselves by our own bootstraps, but it’s a cruel jest to say to a bootless man that he ought to lift himself by his own bootstraps.

And many Negroes by the thousands and millions have been left bootless as a result of all of these years of Oppression and as a result of a society that deliberately made his color a stigma and something worthless and degrading.”

So in my lesson plans, I’ll include the “economic way of thinking” and give a tip of the hat to Adam Smith and free-market enterprise. 

But when it comes to choices and circumstances … I’ll be sure to include Dr. King’s perspective as well.

 

The Beauty of Doubt

Doubt

Almost four years ago to the day, I wrote a piece titled “Truth takes a beating …” In it, I lamented the rise of “fake news” and the new category of “alternative facts.”

Not much has changed. If anything, things have gotten worse. Truth finds itself more under assault than ever before. That said, I still have faith that while truth “might lose a battle or two, it always wins the war.”

Over the years there has been another casualty. And that is the vilification of doubt: the belief that doubt is weakness, that doubt is unprincipled, that doubt is evil.

I believe in the beauty of doubt. I’ll go one better. I believe in a God that embraces and works through and with our doubt.

Consider this. In the book of Matthew, Jesus said that “among those born of women there is no one greater than John the Baptist.” Wow. That is a pretty high complement from the Son of God. Yet only a few pages later in Matthew’s same account, this same “no one greater than John” guy asks whether Jesus is “the one?” That is, he doubts.

He asks through his buddies “are you the One or should we be waiting for another?” This is John the Baptist – the same John who baptized Jesus in the River Jordan, the same John who heard God’s voice, the same John who saw the “Spirit descending like a dove.” Still, despite ALL that, John had doubts.

I wonder. Could John’s doubts have been one reason Jesus considered him so great?

I believe there is beauty in doubt. Doubt elicits the winsome qualities of humility, modesty, and open-mindedness. By contrast, the absence of doubt brings out ugly elements of cocksure self-righteousness.

I believe there is community in doubt. Doubt’s questioning, it’s hesitancy, encourages re-examination, inclusion, openness. Doubt’s absence invites isolation, segregation, and discrimination.

Finally, I believe there is wisdom in doubt. Doubt keeps our minds open, inquisitive, wondering. Without it, there is no exploration, no inquisitiveness, no investigation.

To be clear, I’m not suggesting that we not stand firm in our convictions – that we not stand up and speak out in defense of the beliefs, principles, and morals we hold dear. No. Not at all. Stand tall. Stand strong.

Rather, I’d say we follow St. Peter’s advice to “always be ready to give a logical defense” of our faith but to do so “courteously and respectfully.” Indeed, other Greek translations of that last phrase admonish us to do so “with meekness and fear.”

Not quite, doubt, but close.

A Necessary Evil?

Founding fathers and slavery

Declaration of Independence by John Trumbull, 1819

Conservative Republican Senator Tom Cotton from Arkansas is proposing national legislation that would prohibit Federal funds to any teacher, school or school district that uses content from the Pulitzer Prize winning New York Times 1619 Project.

The 1619 Project isn’t without its critics. The folks at the conservative Manhattan Project aren’t fans. But by my count, no one gets it 100 percent right. Not the 1619 Project, but in this case, certainly not Senator Cotton.

In defending his “defunding” of anyone associated with the 1619 Project, Mr. Cotton said this:

“We have to study the history of slavery and its role and impact on the development of our country because otherwise we can’t understand our country. As the Founding Fathers said, it was the necessary evil upon which the union was built, but the union was built in a way, as Lincoln said, to put slavery on the course to its ultimate extinction.”

According to these same reports, Cotton claimed that instead of portraying America as “an irredeemably corrupt, rotten and racist country,” the nation should be viewed “as an imperfect and flawed land, but the greatest and noblest country in the history of mankind.”

There’s a whole lot wrong about Senator Cotton’s comments. Perhaps he was having a moment.  I’ve said a lot of stupid things in my life and most of them – fortunately – were not to a reporter. But there are many claims here worth a historian’s review.

One thing to start. Lincoln was a great president – some would argue our greatest – but he was not a Founding Father.

To be sure, a fair and complete read of Lincoln’s history and record put him clearly in the anti-slavery camp. But when Lincoln unilaterally canceled emancipation proclamations by his generals, and then the following year signed the 1862 Confiscation Act that allowed the confiscation of rebel slaves because they were … well … “property,” abolitionist Horace Greely challenged the president to make clear his position on the abolition of slavery. Lincoln famously replied:

“…If I could save the Union without freeing any slave I would do it, and if I could save it by freeing all the slaves I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing some and leaving others alone, I would also do that….”

Lincoln’s first duty was to the union, not the abolition of slavery.

But the phrase by Sen. Cotton that has (or had) everyone talking about, was his claim that the Founding Fathers felt that slavery was a “necessary evil upon which the union was built.”

From a historians’ perspective, there are quite a few problems with this one too. First, the Founding Fathers were not a monolith. They were different people with very different perspectives on a host of issues, slavery among them. Some might suggest that the few areas of agreement among them were Enlightenment ideals, deism, and independence from the King and parliament.

There was considerable diversity of opinion over the institution of slavery – from staunch abolitionists (Adams, Hamilton) to guilt-ridden patriots (Jefferson, Washington) to straight-up racists (Virginia’s Edmund Randolph and Georgia’s James Jackson).

As historian Stephen Ambrose has noted, of the nine presidents who owned slaves, only one, George Washington, freed his. And of course there’s Jefferson, who penned the immortal “these truths are self-evident, that all men are created equal.” But neither Jefferson nor the rest of our Founding Fathers put that into practice. Writes Amrose:

“Jefferson, like all slaveholders and many other white members of American society, regarded Negroes as inferior, childlike, untrustworthy and, of course, as property. Jefferson, the genius of politics, could see no way for African-Americans to live in society as free people. He embraced the worst forms of racism to justify slavery.”

It would be hard to make the claim that there was a wide-spread consensus amongst the Founding Fathers that slavery was either “necessary” or “evil.” It would be easier to make the case that many (if not most) of the Founding Fathers saw slavery not as “necessary” but “normal.” Some in the paternalistic sense – that whites had the obligation to lift blacks out of their backward condition. Some, like Jefferson, in the very racist sense – that whites were inherently and genetically superior to blacks.

Perhaps the best “spin” that one could put on the Founding Fathers and slavery was their overall tolerance of it. Or perhaps one could use the word that historian Joseph Lewis used to describe the slavery debate amongst the revolutionary generation in is his Pulitzer-prize winning book, “Founding Brothers.” He titled that chapter of his book, “The Silence.”

Many of the Founding Fathers, knew the practice of slavery was evil but found it politically expedient to ignore and chose to pass the responsibility on to the next generation of Americans. And, as noted, aside from Washington this guilt did not drive them to free the hundreds and thousands of slaves they owned. Nor did it stop them from taking advantage of their position as slaveholders.

[Note that it did not stop Jefferson from having a long-term sexual relationship with his slave Sally Hemmings which most historians believe began when Ms. Hemmings was only 14 years old. I’m sure most would put that in the ‘evil’ category but doubt anyone would argue it ‘necessary.’]

Was slavery “necessary”? Not economically. At least not in broadestr sense. The move by farmers and plantation owners from indentured servitude to slave labor helped large agribusinesses but it was a very bad deal for the working poor and lower-middle class.

Moreover, the acceleration of the slave trade came well after the U.S. independence and establishment of the U.S. Constitution. In that sense, the result of the Founding Fathers’ work was not to put slavery on the path to extinction, but rather on a path to spectacular growth. In 1790, three years after the ratification of the U.S. Constitution, there were approximately 650,000 slaves in the United States. Just thirty years or approximately one generation later, that number doubled to 1.5 million. In another thirty years and on the eve of the Civil War in 1850, the number doubled again to 3 million. Enslaved people were not necessary for American independence. But many wealth landowners in the south felt they were essential for their own economic development and the sale of cotton and other agricultural goods. 

I guess one can argue that the acceptance of the heinous practice of slavery perhaps was necessary to get agreement amongst the thirteen colonies to support the nation’s rebellion against the British. Most specifically, it was a compromise to seal support from South Carolina, Georgia, and especially the nation’s largest state – Virginia. In that, it was less of a “necessity” and more a moral and ethical compromise – an acceptance of evil to ‘get the job done.’

The big problem with Senator Cotton’s position is one could read from his (wrong) interpretation of history that slavery was a reasonable “price to be paid” for the establishment of our union. It wasn’t and needn’t have been. Put more directly, it shouldn’t have been. And to believe so would be to pervert American ideas of democracy to an anti-democratic “ends justify the means” ideology – something more appropriate for Chairman Mao than General Washington.

The ultimate irony is that many African Americans –  those who suffered from slavery and segregation – likely agree with one thing Senator Cotton said about the U.S. That the U.S. is “imperfect and flawed land, but the greatest and noblest country in the history of mankind.”  Indeed, Nikole Hanna-Jones opens her 1619 essay noting that her father, a military veteran, proudly flew the U.S. flag outside their small home in rural Iowa despite all the hardships he had faced throughout his life as a black man.

You don’t have to agree with everything said or written in The New York Times 1619 Project. But slavery was a defining element of our first one hundred years of history. It was evil. It wasn’t necessary. And even after slavery’s official demise, its legacy of racism and white supremacy left a heavy imprint on our next one hundred years. And it remains with us today.

Facing and wrestling with the hard truth of our history is not anti-American. It is another form of patriotism.

Statues

Jefferson Davis statue monument avenue by barxtux

There’s a lot of talk about statues these days. Actually, a lot more than just talk. And even the “talk” is a euphemism. Not a good time to be a statue.

While Andrew Jackson and the founding fathers have been the source of some of the grumbling most attention has been given to Confederate statues.

There are those who say these statues glorify those who fought to maintain the right for white people to enslave black people. Others say these statues simply document figures in U.S. history. 

Both views are correct. This is exactly why so many communities are deciding to rid themselves of them!

A recent news report about yet another confederate statue being taken down provides a clue. In what was otherwise a piece on protesters, police and community groups there was a seemingly random “throwaway” line that, from a historical perspective, made all the difference.   It was this:

“The Lee statue was erected in 1904.”

Wait. 1904? A statue of Lee almost forty years after the end of the Civil War? Over thirty years after Lee’s death? (He died in 1870.)

Usually, statues and commemorations are made either contemporaneously or immediately after a hero’s demise. We were busy naming buildings and airports after President Ronald Reagan while he was still living. Why erect a Lee statue more than a generation after his death?

James Loewen – who both in appearance in whose voice is eerily similar to Bernie Sanders – wrote a book, “Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything that You American History Textbook Got Wrong.” Loewen was a sociologist who became interested in historical landmarks. He found that “historical markers” – including statues – were less about accurately recording history and more about the motivation of interested parties to leave a marker or message for current and future generations on how to interpret that history.

His recurring admonition was, if you want to understand the meaning of a statue – particularly a Confederate statue – don’t look at what it is or what it says, focus on when it was erected.

The fact is that up until post-Reconstruction, most civil war monuments were in remembrance of the fallen. The Civil War was and remains the bloodiest in American history. Rough estimates are that it claimed somewhere between 610,000 to 750,000 lives. Monuments and markers honored the dead.

But ten years after the Civil War the United States and its northern Republican reformers began to tire from the pains of reconstruction. And by the end of the 1870s and with the election of Rutherford B. Hayes, whites clawed back to power and quickly implemented a range of laws crippling the 15th amendment – everything from the infamous “grandfather clause” in Louisiana to poll taxes and literacy tests. Between that, intimidation, and outright violence and lynching, white supremacists regained government control.

They, in turn, engaged in a well-organized effort to recast the Civil War as that of a “lost cause” pursued by noble, honorable, and well-intentioned men of the South. They also wanted to remind the negro – that was the nicest word used back then – who was in charge. In addition to rewriting history, another motivating factor was intimidation and domination. That campaign included monuments that blanketed the South from 1890 to 1920, all with the help of Ku Klux Klan and associated organizations such as the United Daughters of the Confederacy.

The goal of these statues was to remind both radical Republicans and freed African American slaves that segregation would not only continue in the South but would be celebrated as worthy and noble. As Wiley M. Nash noted at the erection of a Confederate statue in 1908:

Like the watch fires kindled along the coast of Greece that leaped in ruddy joy to tell that Troy had fallen, so these Confederate monuments, these sacred memorials, tell in silent but potent language, that the white people of the South shall rule and govern the Southern states forever.

The historical record is abundantly clear. These statues weren’t just about remembering history. They were about reinterpreting and ensuring a particular view or version of history – that of white supremacy – would be remembered in the future.

I grew up with these monuments as a boy in New Orleans. The Robert E. Lee statue was erected in 1880. “Lee Circle” – the site of the Robert E. Lee statue erected in 1880 – was notable for its prominence as the main thoroughfare from the Central Business District to the Lower Garden District and a central stop for the city’s famous streetcars. No matter that General Lee had never visited the city of New Orleans!

New Orleans Mayor Landrieu took down the monument at Lee Circle. In his speech – which I recommend everyone read – he noted that:

“The historic record is clear, the Robert E. Lee, Jefferson Davis, and P.G.T. Beauregard statues were not erected just to honor these men, but as part of the movement which became known as The Cult of the Lost Cause. This ‘cult’ had one goal — through monuments and through other means — to rewrite history to hide the truth, which is that the Confederacy was on the wrong side of humanity.” 

Mayor Landrieu also repeated the oft-quoted claim by confederate vice-president Alexander Stephens, who compared to Jefferson Davis, was a “moderate” on issues of slavery and race. Stephens noted that the Confederacy’s:

“cornerstone rests upon the great truth, that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery — subordination to the superior race — is his natural and normal condition. This, our new government, is the first, in the history of the world, based upon this great physical, philosophical, and moral truth.”

So in taking down these statues are we taking down history?

Yes! But it is not the taking down of the history of the Civil War. That history remains and is well preserved if you visit Gettysburg, Antietam, or Manassas.

The history that is being taken down is that which happened a generation after the Civil War. The history that protesters are refusing to celebrate is that of a successful post-reconstruction effort to make acceptable – even honorable – a racist and segregated society long after emancipation and equal protection were American law.

 

“Along Monument Avenue” by barxtux is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

A New Year

New Day

It is that time of year. That is, time for a new one. A new year.

New Year was never a big deal in my family. We had three holidays – Thanksgiving, Christmas, and Easter. If you discern a Christian faith-based theme you’ve got it right. God’s love, God’s forgiveness, and thanks be to God. That was about all that merited big celebrations and brouhaha in our home.

Other annual celebrations – birthdays, anniversaries, a new year – well, they never quite made the cut.

Part of that was likely due to my parents midwestern and Depression-era roots. Another day was just another day. The sun will come up. There will be work to be done. There will be mouths to
feed, clothes to wash, bills to pay. Just like the day before.

That may seem curmudgeonly if not depressing to some, but there was a flip-side to this practical and seemingly unsentimental view of life that is both liberating and exciting.

One the one hand, every day is the same day. But on the other hand, every day is its own day. A new day, if you will perhaps even a new year.  The flip side of “another day is just another day” is this: “every day merits its own celebration.” No need to wait for a birthday to celebrate your life. No need for an anniversary to celebrate your marriage. No need for a new calendar to celebrate past accomplishments or to set new goals. You have the opportunity to do each one of those things every day! Why pack them all in one? What are you going to do with the other 364?

For Mom and Dad, this way of thinking was particularly applicable for resolutions, something we commonly associate with a New Year. If you want to do something – set a goal, accomplish a dream, make a change, quite a bad habit, start a good one – shoot, you can do that any day! You can do that today! Why wait for a “special day” to make that happen? Before there was a Nike, there was a Mom and Dad who would say that if you wanted to do something, well, “just do it!”

So it is in that spirit that I write to all those celebrating the New Year with their lists of goals and resolutions – good luck! I hope you achieve them all. But know this. There is a good chance that you’ll fall short in one or more (all?). But that’s ok. Because there is always tomorrow. And you can try again. And again. The sun will come up. There will be work to be done. There will be mouths to feed, clothes to wash, bills to pay. Just like the day before. But there’s no need to wait for another year to roll by. You can try it again tomorrow. And the next day.

Similarly, for those who have “given up” on New Year’s resolutions, take heart. Resolutions aren’t contingent on January 1 st . You can make that resolution any time. Today, in fact! Yes, you’ll likely fall short, just like those who woke up January 1 st clinging to their resolutions with an earnest intensity only to see them in tatters a month later. That’s ok too. You too, can try again tomorrow. Or the next day.

So Happy New Year. Because every day is a new day. Every day is a New Year.

A Song for Its Time … and a Dime

For those of you who are readers of the JuiceBar, the following essay is part of a Web 2.0 exercise in presenting a popular culture artifact for the graduate course Teaching & Learning Historical Thinking, part of the George Mason University College of Education and Human Development Secondary Education (SEED) Program. The requirement is a Web 2.0 exercise that could be used in a high school history course. In this case, I’m using this blog post to engage students on how music can provide insight into history. I hope you enjoy it. And feel free to pretend you are in my high school history class and offer your thoughts on current songs that give insight on what is going on in today’s social, economic and political culture.

Folks, the topic today is popular culture. Specifically, what you can learn about history and a historical period through popular culture. By popular culture, I thinking about things like movies, fashion, and music. 

In this case, let’s take a look at music.

Music is often both a reflection of and reaction to the political, economic, and social trends in a given period. Take the issue of war and conflict. In American history, we have songs of the American Revolution, Civil War, World War II and the Vietnam War. If you’re interested, just try “Googling” any of those wars and “music.” You’ll get some interesting lists. Most of the songs of earlier wars were written to support the cause. But there were others that gave voice to the opposition to war.Others oppose it. If you’re looking for something that typifies the latter, listen to my favorite anti-Vietnam anthem, Edwin Star’s “War” which was popular protest song during Vietnam. It is a classic.

But music isn’t just reflective of or a reaction to conflict.  When you think about American history in general, you can identify music that is reflective of social movements in everything from the suffragette movement (it even has a Spotify channel!) to desegregation in the 60s to the LGBT movement and Katy Perry’s song “I kissed a girl.”

[Hold on to that thought because a bit later I’m going to ask you to identify a song in popular culture today that, in your opinion, is reflective in some way of what is going on in today’s society.]

In this case, we’re going to focus on songs that reflect the economic developments. This was particularly true of the songs of the 30s and the Great Depression. The depth and scope of the Great Depression are hard to appreciate today.  At its height nearly a quarter of Americans were unemployed. Amidst these dark times emerged a lot of upbeat music (most notably, swing music). In that case, one can interpret music as a reaction to the downbeat mood. There were a lot of those – upbeat tunes and lyrics, that is. Hard to imagine that one of the most popular titles during those years was a 1933 tune called “We’re in the Money.” Ironic since most people weren’t (in the money, that is) but sociologist speculate that tunes like this gave people who otherwise had no hope, hope.

But in terms of a song that best truly reflected the era was the tune “Brother, Can You Spare a Dime” which came out in 1932 at the deepest periods of unemployment. I’ve copied and pasted the lyrics to the song below.

The tune, which first was sung as part of a review titled “Americana” became the “anthem” for workers during the Great Depression. It was a thinly veiled indictment of a capitalist economic system that many people felt had “left behind” the workers that built America.

The song chronicles the story of the workers who built the nation’s railroads, buildings, and infrastructure as well as those who fought in the gruesome first World War (“khaki suits”) and how the U.S. economic system seemingly deserted them during the depression and now they are forced to “beg” for money.

Not only can the tune give insight into the 1930s one could also be used to gain insight into today’s modern economic malaise.

Specifically, you can read through the lyrics of this song and hear the same complaints that many American workers in the Midwest have today about the loss of good-paying manufacturing blue collar jobs due to automation and international trade.

NOW HERE’S MY ASK of you.  Comment on this blog post. Feel free to react to anything I’ve written above but I want you to specifically comment on the lyrics of this song and how you think it gave voice to workers in the Great Depression. But wait, there’s more! In your comment I also want you to identify a relatively current song – say something in the last five years – that you think captures one element of what is going on in today’s culture, economy, or politics. If you can’t find one, feel free to write a song of your own! One important note. Let’s keep any current song one that is free from explicatives or vulgar language. I know that knocks out quite a few. But think about some of the songs that are on your favorite playlist over the past few years and think about what that song helps describe developments in today’s society, culture, politics or … economics!  BTW if you want to rewrite the song below for today, you’ll have to change the numbers. A dime back in the 1930s would be about a buck fifty today ($1.47).

“Brother, Can You Spare a Dime,” lyrics by Yip Harburg, music by Jay Gorney (1931)

They used to tell me I was building a dream, and so I followed the mob,

When there was earth to plow, or guns to bear, I was always there right on the job.

They used to tell me I was building a dream, with peace and glory ahead,

Why should I be standing in line, just waiting for bread?

Once I built a railroad, I made it run, made it race against time.

Once I built a railroad; now it’s done. Brother, can you spare a dime?

Once I built a tower, up to the sun, brick, and rivet, and lime;

Once I built a tower, now it’s done. Brother, can you spare a dime?

Once in khaki suits, gee we looked swell,

Full of that Yankee Doodly Dum,

Half a million boots went slogging through Hell,

And I was the kid with the drum!

Say, don’t you remember, they called me Al; it was Al all the time.

Why don’t you remember, I’m your pal? Buddy, can you spare a dime?

Once in khaki suits, gee we looked swell,

Full of that Yankee Doodly Dum,

Half a million boots went slogging through Hell,

And I was the kid with the drum!

Say, don’t you remember, they called me Al; it was Al all the time.

Say, don’t you remember, I’m your pal? Buddy, can you spare a dime?

What Social Media Hath Wrought

Recently, a young man responded to a post that my wife, Sanderijn, put on her Facebook page.  What followed is something you really need to read for yourself to fully appreciate but the quick summary is this.

Our daughter, Sarah, and her two children were in town for the weekend. Sanderijn, Sarah and Sarah’s two boys aged two and four, decided to enjoy the Friday autumn afternoon by walking down to Lake Anne Plaza. Once there, Sanderijn “checked-in” on Facebook at the Lake Anne Brew House with the post “Beer time with very social 2 and 4-year-olds.”

Someone was not amused. He wrote “I can’t express how wrong this sounds. Does someone need to call CPS?”

(Note. For the uninitiated, CPS stands for Child Protective Services, a Virginia government body whose mission is reflected in its title).

What followed was a marvelous (and personal) example of three ways social media is destroying civil communication. As a communications professional, it is something I will quote at length in future presentations and lectures.

First, the reaction by a person who will go by the name of “Mr. Bk,” along with his following comments, is a case study in “virtue signaling.”

Virtue signaling is when someone uses social networks, in this case, someone else’s post, to show others how morally correct they are. In this case, one Mr. Bk is signaling his moral superiority by (continually) noting his compassion and in this case concern, for children being exposed to someone drinking a beer in public.

Oh, the horror!

After his initial, ill-informed righteous outrage, he follows by constantly reminding us of his benevolence, patience, wisdom, search for truth, care for humanity, and steadfast purity of spirit. He even goes so far as to remind readers they should be grateful and that we are so lucky to have people like him around.

This is the wonderful thing about virtue signaling:  you can claim and broadcast your piety and virtue through social networks without actually having to do anything to merit it.

Second, the Facebook exchange is an example of how communicating through social networks makes you stupid. We think the Internet makes us smart. It doesn’t. It lures us into doing and saying stupid things because doing and saying stupid things are now so easy to do.

Hit a few buttons and “poof”! You’re in someone’s face. And you’ve written something stupid. No knowledge or context needed.

The irony here is that a simple 10-second search by Mr. Bk would have shown that the Lake Anne Brew House is located in Lake Anne Plaza, Reston, Virginia, a wholesome family and child-friendly lake development with fountains and play areas and kids joyously running and screaming and doing what kids do in a fresh open-air environment. He would have also found that the Brew House serves apple juice and kids snacks, that it is adjacent to a Baptist church and coffee shop, and that across the plaza is a used bookstore with a wonderful selection of kids books along with a second-hand children’s clothing store.

But no.

The ease and ubiquity of social networks – which we can carry with us and never leaves either our hand or watchful eye –  give us access to others 24/7. These mobile devices act as technological sirens, who, like those of Greek mythology, lure consumers into countless acts of ignorance, typing and posting without making any effort to determine or deal with reality.

Instead, we see the word “beer” followed the phrase “4-year-old” and immediately express a virtual “OMG!, some drunken sot is dragging innocent babes into the devil’s chamber” and wonder aloud if someone should call 911 and child protective services!

The ease and speed of social network communications mean we often speak first, think later. That’s a bad combination.

Side note. Mr. Bk’s rants are also a good example of the well-known cognitive bias called “anchoring.” That happens when you stick with an initial position even after being confronted by conflicting facts – in this case being told that the initial post was from a mother, grandmother, and social worker of 20+ years who has spent a good part of her life working with children and youth to try and help them escape from real risky and abusive situations. That the grandmother walked to the plaza (Mr. Bk at one point suggested everyone call a cab) and had a single beer.

None of this information impressed Mr. Bk.

He stuck by his figurative guns and insisted not only that he did the right thing, but that he would do it again and that, yes, we should be grateful for him doing so. Indeed, he found it “disturbing” that we didn’t care much for his ill-informed post and decided not to shower him with praise.

 

Finally, it was a wonderful example of social media troll behavior.

A social media troll always has to have the last word. They can’t let something go. They become so intoxicated with themselves and their posts (which they consider an extension of themselves … perhaps even more important than themselves!) that they HAVE to respond.

In the example above, Mr. Bk not only has to have the last word with others but he amazingly also has to have the last word with himself, often posting a series of replies absent anyone else commenting or saying anything.

For these people, their position is so correct, their thoughts are so right, and everything they think is so important for people to understand and accept, that they post unceasingly in a desperate attempt to force their views upon others.

So this is this is how social media and social networks have warped the world modern social interaction.

A place where people use social networks to draw attention to their moral superiority.

A place where there’s a premium on saying something before thinking something.

A place where people become so addicted to their own voice and seeing that voice in print, that they are unwilling and unable to stop themselves from perpetuating meaningless half-truths.

And yes. All this is why the United States has the president that it has today!

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